tv Orlando Letelier Ronni Moffitt Memorial CSPAN3 November 28, 2019 2:20pm-2:31pm EST
car bomb exploded in washington, d.c. just over a mile from the white house. next on "american history tv," historian alan mcpherson on his books of "ghosts of sheridan circle." he gives a talk at busboys and poets in washington. but first, we visit sheridan circle with the author to see where the crime took place and the memorial there for the two victims. >> so we are literally at the scene of the crime. this is a memorial that was put here by the institute for policy studies to memorialize the assassination of orlando
letelier. at the same time, ronni moffitt, a u.s. citizen, was also killed in this car bomb. all of this happened here in sheridan circle in the heart of embassy row in washington, d.c. on that morning, september 21, 1976, orlando letelier was an employee of a think tank in washington called the institute for policy studies. he was driving his car to work. he lived in that direction in bethesda, maryland. he came down embassy row, massachusetts avenue, lined with several embassies. in the car with him were two colleagues from ips, ronni moffitt and her husband michael moffitt. they turned the corner over here and unbeknownst to them, following them was a gray sedan. in that gray sedan were two
cuban-americans who had helped put a bomb underneath the driver's seat in the chevelle that orlando letelier was driving. the order to put the bomb in there was given by the secret police of chile, and chile was ruled at the time by pinochet, a dictator, who didn't like the political activities that orlando letelier, a former ambassador to the united states from chile, was taking on in washington, and so we know now that it was the dictator who ordered the secret police to assassinate him. and so they did this partly through an american-chilean michael townley who came to washington, built the bomb with these cuban-americans and they put it under the car of letelier. they thought he would be alone and ended up having two american citizens with him.
the car came down massachusetts, turned over here and exploded right here. this is where the two cuban-americans in the gray sedan pushed the button on this pager that set off the bomb. almost immediately the bomb blew off letelier's legs and within a few minutes he bled to death. there were car parts, body parts, broken windows, twisted metal all over this place. the car careened for something like 40, 60 feet, went several feet into the air, crashed down and ended up crashing against a volkswagen that was illegally parked right here at this spot. so letelier died almost immediately.
and then came the tragic story of ronni moffitt. she was not targeted but she happened to be in the car with him. she stumbled out of the car and her husband was in the backseat. he suffered just minor cuts. he looked at her and she was stumbling away so he figured she must be okay. i'm going to go help orlando who's in the driver's seat and clearly is dying. and so he went around the front, tried to get orlando out and couldn't do it. there was, you know, jagged metal pieces everywhere, broken glass. and he simply couldn't -- the car had essentially imploded onto itself. he couldn't get the body out. eventually he went to see his wife and he realized at that point that a piece of shrapnel had exploded from the driver's seat and had cut her carotid artery and she was essentially drowning in her own blood even though that was her only injury.
and so both victims were immediately brought -- within a few minutes there were police vehicles and ambulances all over this circle. we're just a few blocks away from dupont circle and so a lot of people could hear this. we're about a mile from the white house and the state department, so you could hear the explosion from almost anywhere in central d.c. so within a few minutes after that, they were both off to the hospital. orlando was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. they tried to revive and save ronni moffitt in all sorts of ways at the hospital. nothing worked. and so she was pronounced dead within about an hour of the crash. this was a very serious assassination. it was the only state-sponsored assassination in the united states. it singled an escalation in what
was called operation condor. this was an operation by several south american dictatorships who together were going to chase their leftist opponents whether peaceful opponents or violent ones, all over south america and eventually outside of south america so outside of each other's countries. it chased them wherever they could find them, mexico, europe or the united states. this was the only condor assassination in the united states. it ended up being a huge miscalculation for the pinochet government. they must have somehow thought that this would be okay with the u.s. government likely because they had done it in all sorts of parts of the world and the u.s. government hadn't done anything about it. also because letelier was a socialist and he was allying with other socialists, but he was a democratic socialist and a peaceful socialist.
and the pinochet government probably thought that nobody would respond to this, that the americans wouldn't care about this. but it turns out that when you kill a former ambassador in the united states that is a crime under u.s. law, under the u.s. code because that person remains a protected person until they die. also of course they killed a united states citizen. these are two separate federal crimes. immediately the fbi descended on this scene. they took the investigation away from the washington, d.c. police as soon as they realized who the victims were and who the potential criminals were and so then they had the resources to find people in latin america to help them investigate this, put some pressure and find allies in the state department and that's eventually what they did. within about a year and a half they found the bomb maker, they found the cuban-americans who
were guilty. some of them went to jail. some of them didn't. some of them went for very little time. but eventually this case, through the years, ended up really bringing pinochet's terror state to justice in that the chilean government dissolved the secret police once this crime became public and it became clear that it was the chileans who done it. they fired the most important torturer and killer in chilean history who was the head of the secret police. and eventually it created a lot of momentum for the u.s. government to put pressure on pinochet to step down and it created momentum among the chilean, peaceful anti-pinochet forces to essentially run him out of office through a referendum and then in an election in the 1980s. the case itself, even though it seemed to be small, created all this momentum and really set off
a human rights revolution through the rest of the 20th century. this memorial is particularly important because it has the dates of the two victims. it focuses on the victims. it doesn't focus on the aggressors. it doesn't focus on the political issues at the time which was the cold war, anti-communism, counterterrorism and those sorts of things. but it's really a very human memorial. it doesn't paint these people as heroes. they're simply people who were trying to help their countries or in the case of ronni moffitt, help another country out. and i think it illustrates these themes of justice, peace and dignity that everybody is fighting for these things. everybody should be fighting for these things. and so it really kind of goes beyond the petty politics of the cold war.
the 21st of september, since 1976, friends, family, former colleagues of letelier and moffitt come down here, they lay flowers, and they have a commemoration around that traumatic episode for the country of chile. it's important to note also that the chilean ambassador's residence is right over there. not the embassy, but the chilean ambassador's residence. on the morning of september 21st, the chilean ambassador actually heard the bombing. he was in the shower. it gave him a stir. he came down and he was wondering what was going on. turns in that he wasn't in on this assassination at all even though it was his government that did it. but later on, of course, he trumpeted the version of events of the pinochet regime which is that there's no way his government could have done this. it must have been some leftist
guerrillas trying to pin it on pinochet. but it's important that the residence is there because the residence itself now has a bust of orlando letelier to try to remember him also and so around this circle we have these two memorials to this one man and of course to ronni moffitt. and so share dan circle will be marked forever in the heart of washington. >> hello, everyone. welcome to busboys and poets. my name is olivia. i am the book events coordinator here and i'm very excited to welcome alan mcpherson for his book "ghosts of sheridan circle." it's an event that i was not aware of, honestly, and was very excited to read about it in this book and i'm excited for alan to speak about it. here at busboys we like to have